Winter on the steelhead streams of the Great Lakes can be a spectacular experience with some truly brutal weather conditions.
There’s something romantic about the idea of standing knee-deep in a rushing Lake Erie tributary stream as snow and wind rips across the water. It might not be everyone’s idea of a good time, but for some it’s the best time of the year, with lessened crowds and plenty of hungry steelhead waiting to be caught. Knowing how to catch these fish can be a challenge under the best of conditions, and that is heightened during the frigid winter months when slushy flows and lethargic fish are the norm. That is, unless you can be armed with some tips to make your winter expeditions more effective!
War of Attrition
Patience is the name of the game when targeting steelhead in winter. Those who catch the most fish are the anglers who find their quarry, and stay on them until the battle is won. It can take 100 drifts over a steelhead before one goes by just right and the fish decides to strike. Winter steelheading is a far cry from the constant movement of bass or summer trout fishing, so shifting away from that mindset is key to success. There might be days where you fish one or two holes for several hours each, but getting on fish and sticking with them until they hit is a proven strategy for putting fish in the net during winter.
Focus On The Drift, Not the Flies
Fly selection is always important, but during the chilly winter months the drift is really what matters most. If you have confidence in your flies, work them hard and keep tinkering with the drift. Make sure the flies are down deep enough, but also moving through the fish zone naturally. It may take a half dozen tweaks of depth, weight, and distance between flies until you get what you’re after, but that attention to detail can make all of the difference!
Stay Mentally Sharp
Winter steelheading is defined by the grind of the day. It can take hours of probing different spots or hammering drifts over fish before there’s finally a take. One of the most difficult challenges for the angler is staying sharp and focused on the task when so much of an outing is spent without success. Without fail it’s always the minute you least expect it that an opportunity presents itself, and it’s incredibly easy to fall asleep at the wheel and miss what could be the best (and maybe only) shot at a fish. Treat each cast like it’s going to be the one that results in a fish, and eventually that persistence will pay off!
Hooking a steelhead during winter and experiencing those first few headshakes with a snowy backdrop is the type of thing that makes this time of year so memorable. It’s hard to top the sheer power of those fish coupled with the natural beauty all around. For as fun and exciting as it can be, it’s also a season of hardship with snow, wind, and Arctic temperatures threatening to derail even the most benign of outings. To catch more steelhead this winter, understand that the drift takes center stage of importance, staying mentally tuned in with each drift is key, and that the war of attrition is sure to be won by the angler who stays persistent and patient!